Last week, I was betrayed by my six-year-old.
My husband and I have been arguing for the past 17-and-a-half years about whether we have too many books. This feels like a particularly Jewish problem. Indeed, there was a session at Limmud last year specifically aimed at decluttering the books in your home.
Two decades of working in publishing have resulted in me owning really quite a large number of the things. My perspective is that so long as it’s still possible to walk around the the house, all is well. Anthony disagrees, quite fundamentally.
The other day, while Boaz our six-year-old was getting dressed, he gazed round his bedroom.
Boaz: I can never choose what to read because there are so many books.
Me: We do have a lot don’t we? Daddy thinks there are too many! [I laugh, derisively.]
Boaz: Mum, there actually are too many. Daddy’s right.
Me: Oh. Do you think so?
Boaz: Look — they’re even on top of my bookcase.
Boaz: They go right up to the ceiling!
Me: Yes, yes OK.
It’s all about one’s perception of the book as a physical entity — whether you see it as an object of beauty in itself, or just a means to access the information inside.
One of my favourite books of all time is 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. It’s a wartime correspondence between an American customer and a second-hand London bookshop. As a teenager, I used to pore over Hanff’s various descriptions of the books that were sent to her across the Atlantic: “I just never saw a book so beautiful … all that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type … Every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it … I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages.”
I didn’t even know what all of those words meant at the time, but I did know the feeling of a book being so lovely that I wanted to stroke the cover, not just read it. I still do. “Stop stroking that book!” my nine-year-old daughter sometimes says to me, sternly, and I blink and look down, not realising I was doing so.
Of all of the techniques employed to make a book more beautiful — cloth binding and ribbon bookmarks, head and tail bands and marbled endpapers — the most entrancing one I have ever come across is the “fore-edge painting”. This was a technique used from the 17th century onwards, whereby a scene is painted on the edges of a book’s pages. The image is invisible when the book is closed, but when you fan the pages out, it magically appears.
So what about the absolute antithesis of this: the ebook? I’m actually not a digital book-basher at all. I own a Kindle, and find that not only is it utterly brilliant for travelling (completely quenching, as it does, my historic panic that I might run out of things to read, which meant that in the pre-digital days I would take as many books away with me as I was likely to get through in an average year), but it has lots of other advantages, too…
For example, I’m constantly flicking back through novels to try and remember who certain characters are, and on my Kindle I can find out in seconds using the search facility. And the “try a sample” feature, which lets you read the first few pages of a book free of charge, is amazing.
Ebooks are enormously practical, but the charm and seductively tactile nature of the physical specimen is hard to beat. Furthermore, one of the unexpected downsides of the digital publishing age is that if people have switched over to ebooks, their bookcases have therefore become frozen in time. They might have added barely anything new in the last decade. How am I supposed to see what my friends have been reading recently? I think it’s incredibly thoughtless of them.
I take such a nosy pleasure in scanning friends’ bookshelves when I visit. I love to see what books we have in common, to spot titles I’d like to read and others I’ve never heard of but want to know more about. Sometimes I’m amazed to discover an entire bookcase where there’s not a single volume I feel interested in picking up. “Who even are you?” I think to myself, gazing at my friend in a whole new way.
So I’m afraid that both Anthony and Boaz are on to a loser with this “getting rid of books” campaign. I do feel, however, that I need to make some kind of concession, so I’ve decided I’m prepared to give away our UK Bed and Breakfast Guide 2002. And they’d better be grateful.